Those new to the tarot, and especially those who are younger (but then almost everyone involved is younger than me these days) rejoice when told by their mentors that they don’t have to learn all of that arcane stuff in tarot books, just “go with what you feel” and ignore any methodical, structured approach to the cards. To the extent that one is a competent psychic, this advice causes no harm. But it isn’t strictly “reading the cards,” it’s tapping directly into the source of the wisdom that the cards channel, call it what you will: the Collective Unconscious, the Akashic Record, the Astra Plane, the Mind of God, Plato’s “Soul of the World,” etc. In my opinion, it’s also what makes long-distance readings via phone or internet “work,” and in such cases the cards serve mainly as a convenient prop. For most people, reading the cards with insight and precision is an acquired discipline, not necessarily a natural gift. A rich storehouse of observation and experience resides in the literature, both modern and historical, and newcomers do themselves a serious disservice by categorically rejecting it in favor of a purely imaginative style of interpretation based solely on the visual presentation. The latter can be great fun, but it may be entirely divorced from the baseline knowledge encoded in the system, which in fact may not be well-served by the images. Every card contains layers of meaning that manifest at different levels of awareness (practical, psychological, philosophical, spiritual), and lacking some form of roadmap could mean that many of the less obvious forks in the road could be missed, with one’s approach to reading being the poorer for it.
The main advantage in tackling the more difficult of the esoteric tomes, notably (but certainly not limited to) Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s Liber T, is that it trains the mind to look beneath the surface of the conventional viewpoint (by which I mean the folkloric accretions that have grown up around the Waite-Smith tarot deck) and consider alternative vistas. A number of modern writers have endeavored to aid the neophyte by rendering this often indigestible mass of information into plain language; the best of them succeed at transforming the occult jargon into accessible terms while the worst simply denature it. When I started out, I went right in at the deep end with The Book of Thoth (admittedly after gaining some vital background in the Hermetic Qabala) and, if a developing novice has an insatiable curiosity and urge to grow, my advice is still to grit your teeth, tighten your seatbelt, strap on your metaphysical hard-hat and dive straight into the original material. The best way to learn to do something is often to “just do it” to the best of your ability; it’s known as “bootstrapping,” and the literature can provide handholds by which to haul yourself up. Much of it will remain elusive for years and some of it – especially Crowley’s more complex ruminations – may never make much sense even after repeated readings. The good news is that hitting the high points will generally suffice to bring a new depth of understanding to one’s appreciation of the cards, and the rest can be filed as “food for thought” to be pulled out periodically and gnawed away at.
The bulk of the published esoteric foundation that causes such heartburn for proponents of a free-form, open-ended, largely intuitive style of reading revolves around what are known as correspondences. Occult thinkers of the 19th Century imbued the tarot with a vast range of augmented meanings drawn mostly from Greek, Arabic and Hebrew philosophical and religious sources: elemental, astrological, numerological, qabalistic, alchemical and magical, to name a few. The important point to keep in mind is that all of these ramifications are truly auxiliary and not essential to effective use of the cards for divination. That said, applying them with skill and restraint can enliven a reading with multi-dimensional insights that bring nuance and color to the narrative. I summon them when I’m reaching for just a bit more detail than offered by the usual interpretation. An on-line colleague coined the phrase “narrative triggers,” which is flexible enough to describe all manner of memory-jogging devices, including correspondences, metaphors, analogies and other story-telling shortcuts. Absorbing them will definitely stretch the mind and could even bend it a little in creative ways, leaving an indelible stamp on one’s personal reading style.